London's Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports 1848-1972

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London County Council 1920

Annual report of the Council, 1920. Vol. III. Public Health

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"What are we fairly justified in expecting from directly repressive action on the part of the
community ? Prostitution is, as I endeavoured to show in the chapters on demand and supply, a
phenomenon arising out of the complicated interaction of personal factors and social conditions. Looked
at from this point of view, the attempt to stamp it out completely by summary, even though persistent,
action, cannot be hopefully regarded. The instrument which a municipality must use to that end is
the police. Now the police is an instrument which, serving, as it does, many useful purposes, must be
preserved as nearly intact as may be. We have seen that contact with prostitution threatens its
integrity and efficiency. On the police, therefore, no more can be laid than it is capable of bearing.
Just what this load is must be separately determined for every community, and, in large cities, for
different parts of the same community. Where the general level of administration and discipline is
high, more can be safely demanded than in communities in which the level is lower; where public
sentiment is active and definite, the burden may be further increased; where the local organisation
observe, complain and follow-up, the danger of a police breakdown is still further diminished.
"It is evident, however, that, even amidst favourable general conditions, the very nature of the
instrument employed involves, under the complicated conditions of modern life, limitations against
which one soon runs. Police repression can be directed mainly against professional prostitution and
its exploiters. Unquestionably it has a valuable function to discharge in removing stimulation and
reducing suggestion, as also in minimising opportunities for demoralisation. But in so far as the
prostitute herself is personally concerned, repression becomes operative only after the woman has been
wrecked. It penalises an accomplished fact. Powerless to crush this fact out of existence, powerless
for the most part to transform the fact, sheer repression might still hope to deter the beginner by its
forbidding prospect; but, unfortunately, the beginner is less affected by the penalties awaiting her,
because she never believes, at the start, that she is destined to end in the mire. If, therefore, prostitutes
are manufactured by unschooled human nature and imperfect social institutions, they cannot in the
mass be stamped out by brute force ; they must be prevented rather than suppressed—prevented, too,
on both sides, in the sense that the sources of supply must be closed and the demand diverted into other
"Moreover, repression, in order to realise its full possibilities, requires an abundance of institutional
facilities such as now nowhere exist. I have repeatedly adverted to the utter futility of the fines and
short term sentences hitherto generally imposed. Repression, successful up to the limits of its inherent
possibilities, must involve the endeavour to wean the professional prostitute from one way of living
and equip her for another. Reformatories, labour-colonies, hospitals, and similar institutions have,
therefore, to be made adequate to the load which an aggressive policy places upon them. At this
moment no city sustains even what it now requires.
"It is a further limitation of the repressive policy, as ordinarily conceived, that it operates almost
altogether upon the woman. We are reminded of the dual nature of prostitution. It involves two
partners. Imagine every brothel closed, every street-walker incarcerated. To the extent that stimulation
and suggestion have by these measures been reduced, demand has suffered a check. But a strong
demand still remains, unaffected by repressive measures directed merely against dissolute women.
Certain stimuli have been removed; otherwise appetite is left where it is. Its gratification is impeded
made more difficult and more expensive. But these are not insuperable obstacles in the presence of
that volume of supply which, if inoffensive, is hardly reached by repressive police measures. Indeed,
part of what was offensive is changed in form rather than entirely driven from the market.
"Repression encounters difficulty at still another point. Prostitution is all too frequently a parasitic
phenomenon that attaches itself to other phenomena, sometimes innocuous, sometimes necessary, sometimes
part and parcel of national life or social tradition. Street-walking and the bawdell are not thus
intertwined with other activities; they represent prostitution in its barest, simplest, most undisguised
form, and as such may be, with comparative ease, successfully attacked by police methods. But when
prostitution insinuates itself into the ordinary life of the community, subtly, inoffensively, imperceptibly
taking advantage of the forms in which business is transacted, sociallife carried on, or recreation enjoyed
—then the difficulties in the way of effective action are more serious. The crudest forms of prostitution
are easily reached; easily, I say, because, even though the task has been nowhere achieved, there is, in
the nature of the case, no reason why a well-governed community should fail to achieve it; but the subtler
forms present problems so different in kind that in dealing with them agencies and influences of a totally
different character must be employed.
"I do not mean that repression will have accomplished little. On the contrary, important good
is achieved at the moment, and still more in the long run. But prostitution as a formidable problem
will still remain. Repression is, on the whole, what physicians call symptomatic treatment; it may
achieve something more than alleviate the ravages, but it does not cure the disease. It does not
necessarily decrease the thing in the same ratio in which it alters appearances.
"What would conceivably happen in a city like London if the police, spurred and controlled by
an active popular impulse, accomplished all that could be humanly expected? Street-walking of a
provocative character would disappear; the advertised brothel would cease to exist; the public house
(saloon) would strictly enforce the law against the harbouring of prostitutes; the obvious forms of
spurious employment would be dispersed—rendered more circumspect and much less readily accessible;
prostitutes would disappear from the lobby and promenade of the variety theatres, etc. The pimp,
the exploiter, the third-party interest would be severely checked, and, with that, the tropical growth
due to them. We may also assume that a vigorous and adequate hygienic policy would lessen the
volume of disease, and effect quicker and completer cures. In a word, prostitution as an offensive and
aggressive activity would be more or less done for, and the loss through disease would be minimised.